How Detroit Tigers flamethrower Gregory Soto is chasing closer role with ‘elite stuff’

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers left-hander Gregory Soto is a special arm out of the bullpen. Entering the 2021 season, his third year in the majors, the 26-year-old is trying to lock down the coveted closer role.

His resume explains everything: A 100 mph fastball, a nasty wipeout slider and — the drawback, like so many Tigers closers before him — too many inconsistencies. Just as ex-Tigers closer Todd Jones picked up the “Roller Coaster” nickname, the less-experienced Soto sometimes takes his passengers for a less-than-thrilling ride.

The next step in his development will be determined by maintaining his command and staying in the strike zone with his Aroldis Chapman-esque repertoire. That’s the only way Soto can become the long-term closer.

“We see the upside,” Hinch said. “He very much has closer stuff, closer mentality. He has a fearlessness of hitters while they fear him. He’s got the complete package to be a dominant reliever. For Gregory, it’s really just throwing strikes and getting ahead into leverage counts.”

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Once, Bruce Rondon was the franchise’s “closer of the future,” but he failed in his pursuit before ever securing the role in the majors. Then, the “closer of the future” title belonged to Joe Jimenez. He became the closer for parts of the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Yet he was noticeably more up-and-down than Soto, and the Tigers sent him to Triple-A Toledo to begin this year’s campaign.

While Bryan Garcia finished 2020 as the closer and posted a dominant 1.66 ERA in his 21⅔ innings, he doesn’t generate many strikeouts and allows too many walks. His makeup seems better suited for seventh- and eighth-inning roles.

But Soto is built differently.

“He’s got closer stuff,” reliever Buck Farmer said. “He’s already going to be in really high-leverage situations, but that ninth inning could be his. He’s continuing to work, and hopefully, it’ll show this season.”

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Soto knows he holds the keys to becoming “one of the top relievers” in the game, he explained. His goals for 2021 are set “pretty high,” and it’s safe to assume one of them is becoming the guy in the ninth inning.

Last year, Soto was on his way to taking over for a struggling Jimenez. He opened the season with 10⅓ scoreless innings across 10 games (July 24-Aug. 16), striking out 14 batters and only issuing two walks and four hits.

But on Aug. 18, Soto allowed four runs to the Chicago White Sox. One night later, the White Sox teed him up for two more runs — on two home runs. After those 10 dominant outings, Soto’s final 17 appearances (Aug. 18-Sept. 24) included 11 earned runs on 12 hits and 11 walks, with 15 strikeouts in 12⅔ innings.

“Mentally, I’m more prepared than last year (to be the closer), so I’m ready to help this team,” Soto said. “I’ve been told that I deserve it for all the tools that I have. It’s not that I’m focused on having that job. I’ll just go out and do my job, and they’ll make the decision of what inning I’m supposed to throw.”

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When Soto arrived in the majors in 2019, his experience had been almost exclusively as a starter. But it didn’t take long to discover his best usage came out of the bullpen. That meant he had to learn to control his emotions. There isn’t as much room for error during one inning of work, so he learned to save his bottled-up emotions for a celebration at the end of an inning.

Soto has also learned more about his pitches. Last season, he used 296 sinkers, 80 sliders and 18 four-seam fastballs. His sinker averaged 97.3 mph; his slider averaged 87.7 mph. The slider, in fact, was nearly unhittable — opponents had a .056 batting average and 13 strikeouts against it.

“My slider is one of the best,” Soto said. “This year, I want to be using it more. I throw 99-100 (mph), but I want to pitch more with my slider. A lot of people say I should use it, and that’s my mindset for this year.”

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If Soto throws strikes with his fastball-slider combination and deliberately avoids the strike zone on certain occasions, there’s no reason why he won’t assume the closer role. He has the ingredients — from his filthy offerings to his lionhearted mindset.

Once Soto does what the Tigers are asking, Hinch is prepared to give him a trial run.

“Obviously, he wants the closer job and leverage roles,” Hinch said. “We want that for him. But the strike zone consistency is going to be an indicator of where he’s used, when he’s used and how often he’s used.

“An additional point is that I don’t want to miss an opportunity to use him in a different role outside of the last three outs in order to win a game. He very well could evolve into a dominant closer, and he has elite stuff, but it might not be the only way that I deploy him.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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